That was great! I really, really liked this movie. This review is going to be a bit explain-y. It got a lukewarm welcome from the public and press, but I think that it is already underrated. It combines the world of Barton Fink (1991) with the Coens interest in religion from A Serious Man (2009).
The film revolves around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is the troubleshooter of the Hollywood studio Capitol Pictures. I guess the title of the movie (Hail, Ceasar!) actually hails Eddie Mannix as the Ceasar of the studio. He is the linchpin of the whole enterprise, and without him, the whole studio would fall apart. This image of him as the Ceasar is even clearer when he sits behind his desk, because behind him on the wall is a poster of the layout of the studio grounds, but styled as a Roman camp.
Eddie Mannix also feels the responsibility of running the studio on his shoulders. Throughout the day that we follow him, the studio is attacked by vultures from all around him: gossip magazines, communists, and the actors and directors hollow out the whole management from within with their eccentric personalities and arrogant dreams of greatness. Mannix moves from one crisis to the next to keep the whole thing afloat.
Mannix is portrayed as some kind of troubled prophet, who is overwhelmed but sees greatness in the making of movies. He is tested in his faith from all sides: the military offers him a job with a bigger salary and tells him to leave that circus. Communists convert the actors, who then tell him that Hollywood is a capitalist abomination. And his wife doesn’t offer any good advice or wisdom.
Meanwhile, the Coen brothers try to make all of this clear to the audience through the movie that Capitol Pictures is shooting: a sandal film about the rise of Jesus. But I think the connection between that imagery and Brolin’s role flew over people’s head. When George Clooney in his role of centurion gives a speech about that he saw Jesus, and how he brought a new light into the world, the screenwriters are actually also talking about Mannix and about Capitol Pictures bringing light to the tired working people. And Mannix, the prophet, tries to maintain a faith that it is all worth it. He even slaps Clooney back to his senses and makes him see the light again.
It all sounds a bit heavy-handed, but it is a funny and playful movie. All the actors are given wonderful roles, and give great performances. There is the great Tilda Swinton, who can be so imposing. There’s Scarlett Johansson, who tries out a prickly character with a great accent. Channing Tatum is very impressive with his dance scene. Ralph Fiennes is a natural in playing an uptight English director. George Clooney is magnetic in his role, and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is a great find. And Josh Brolin of course, who sort of reprises a stoic character from Inherent Vice but his controlled acting is precisely what the film needed.
Whenever a new Coen brothers film comes out, everyone wonders: is it going to be the next Fargo? Or the next No Country for Old Men? No, Hail Ceasar! is more like the next Burn After Reading in its style and comedy. It is also a love letter to making movies, and to Hollywood history. The Coens switch between different film styles in the scenes of the Capitol Pictures films. They tackle sandal epics, ballroom romance, musicals and more, and each one is immediately recognizable and poignantly shown. And I laughed throughout.
The plot isn’t straightforward and the whole movie seems messy, but once you see this central message of Eddie Mannix being depicted as the Ceasar and prophet of Capitol Pictures, bringing new light into the world and keeping his faith while surrounded by vultures, then all the elements start to make sense. Mannix weathered the temptations, slapped new light into the actors, and found newfound faith in his calling.